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U.S. military, diplomats at odds over how to resolve Kandahar's electricity woes

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010; A01

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- U.S. military commanders and senior diplomats are locked in a dispute over the best way to bring more electricity to Afghanistan's second-largest city, complicating a major campaign to win over the population of Kandahar and push out the Taliban.

The standoff has reached the top two U.S. officials in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, illuminating the sometimes-sharp differences between the military and civilian officials over how to stabilize this nation.

Convinced that expanding the electricity supply will build popular support for the Afghan government and sap the Taliban's influence, some officers want to spend $200 million over the next few months to buy more generators and millions of gallons of diesel fuel. Although they acknowledge that the project will be costly and inefficient, they say President Obama's pledge to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011 has increased pressure to demonstrate rapid results in their counterinsurgency efforts, even if it means embracing less-than-ideal solutions to provide basic public services.

"This is not about development -- it's about counterinsurgency," said a U.S military official at the NATO headquarters in Kandahar, advocating rapid action to help Afghan officials boost the power supply. "If we don't give them more fuel, we'll lose a very narrow window of opportunity."

U.S. diplomats and reconstruction specialists, who do not face the same looming drawdown, have opposed the military's plan because of concerns that the Afghan government will not be able to afford the fuel to sustain the generators. Mindful of several troubled development programs over the past eight years, they want the United States to focus on initiatives that Afghans can maintain over the long term.

"Proposals to buy generators and diesel fuel for Kandahar would be expensive, unsustainable and unlikely to have the counterinsurgency impact desired," Eikenberry wrote in a cable to the State Department in Washington this month.

Embassy officials contend that they have won the battle because their plan, which calls for small-scale improvements but no diesel or generator acquisitions, received tacit approval at a planning session in Kabul this month from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, and Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to the region. Both men would have to sign off on any large purchases.

But military officials have not given up. McChrystal and his top deputies still are considering a variety of proposals to increase the power supply in Kandahar, including the purchase of more generators and fuel, according to senior military officials. The military is also examining ways to provide more diesel to the municipal generators already in place. Those units are operating at about 40 percent of capacity because the Finance Ministry in Kabul has not given the city enough money to buy the fuel it needs.

As a consequence, Kandahar residents fortunate enough to have their homes and shops connected to the city's rickety network of electricity wires typically receive about six hours of power a day. But there are days and nights without a flicker of light, the whir of a fan, the distraction of television. Frequent blackouts have shut down factories and kept people locked indoors after sunset.

"We keep praying for some light at night," said Mohammed Jan, a carpet merchant in the main bazaar. "If there was more electricity, there would be more security."

Dam upgrade a solution?

Instead of buying new generators, the U.S. Embassy wants the United States and its NATO partners to focus on refurbishing the Kajaki Dam, a large hydroelectric power plant in the mountains of Helmand province that has been a symbol of unfulfilled American ambition in Afghanistan from almost the day it was inaugurated half a century ago.

The dam, about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar, was built in the early 1950s by the U.S. construction firm Morrison-Knudsen. In 1975, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) installed two generators in the dam's spillway, but they fell into disrepair after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

By the time U.S. experts returned to the dam in 2002, it was barely running. The chief engineer at the time, Rasul Baqi, was cobbling together spare parts from scrap metal and using barbed wire to splice electrical lines.

In 2003, USAID hired the Louis Berger Group, a Washington-based engineering firm, to rehabilitate the two turbines. The agency later hired a state-owned Chinese firm to install a third. But the Chinese did not start working on the project in earnest until 2007, and by then it was too dangerous to move the turbine parts up the 30-mile road to the dam, which USAID officials began to call "Hell's Canyon."

In September 2008, 4,000 British troops were reassigned to Kajaki to escort a large convoy of trucks bearing parts of the turbine. After the British left, security deteriorated along the road, preventing delivery of the cement needed to emplace the turbine. The Chinese contractors departed soon thereafter, and Louis Berger was forced to use helicopters to bring in the supplies to finish its work.

The dam produces about 33 megawatts of electricity with the two rehabilitated turbines, of which about 30 percent reaches Kandahar. As much as 40 percent of the electricity is lost to theft and transmission inefficiencies.

Frank Kenefick, a former USAID project manager who worked on the dam, said the agency rejected a proposal from a German firm to install the third turbine before violence closed the road. USAID, which has spent $47 million on the dam thus far, also did not take advantage of the relative calm in the early part of the decade to put up new transmission lines needed to convey the additional electricity -- something the agency wants to do now but cannot because of security concerns.

"The strategic planning was a complete failure," Kenefick said.

Although military officials support efforts to fix the dam once violence abates in the area, they view a reliance on repairs as incongruous with the prevailing security situation.

"The dam may be the answer at some point in the future," said a U.S. reconstruction expert advising the NATO headquarters in Kandahar. "But right now, you'll get killed if you try to drive up there."

Different perspectives

USAID officials have asked military commanders to deploy more troops to the Kajaki area so construction can resume. But the question of whether the dam should be a focus for military forces centers on different interpretations of what it means to protect the population, the buzz phrase of counterinsurgency strategy. To the military, it means concentrating troops where the people are -- in and around Kandahar. But to some civilians, it makes sense to put forces in less-populous areas if they can secure an important public resource.

Military and civilian officials also remain divided over whether increasing electricity in Kandahar will have a substantial effect on the security situation there. Military officers in southern Afghanistan maintain that if residents' power supply increases, they will have a better opinion of their government and employment will increase, which will help to marginalize the Taliban.

The top NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, said increasing power in the city will produce a "head-turning moment" among residents and will lead them to rally behind the Afghan government.

But embassy and USAID officials contend that Kandahar residents are more concerned about the lack of a credible justice system and the dearth of employment. Civilian officials say small generators could be used to reopen factories and run cold-storage facilities, but they worry that increasing electricity across the board will lead more people to buy air conditioners and refrigerators, resulting in a continued shortage.

Instead of buying fuel, Eikenberry and other embassy personnel want the electric utility in Kandahar to do a better job of collecting fees and to use the money to buy fuel for the generators it already has, which would increase supply but not eliminate the shortage. USAID is offering help through its Afghanistan Clean Energy Program, a $100 million effort to promote "green" power in the war zone. The agency plans to install solar-powered streetlights in the city this year. It is also paying for repairs to some of the existing generators, but it will not buy diesel for them.

The city, which is home to about 850,000 people, receives about 16 megawatts of power. Military officials estimate demand at about 50 megawatts, a target they think they can achieve within three months by buying new generators and more fuel.

By contrast, generators at the sprawling NATO base at the Kandahar airport produce more than 100 megawatts of power, which is used to operate thousands of air conditioners, computers and floodlights.

If the embassy and USAID will not pay for generators and fuel, military officials want to ask other nations, particularly oil-rich Persian Gulf states, for help. But the embassy has opposed a separate entreaty out of concern that it will compete with other requests for reconstruction assistance.

As he sat in a well-lit pizzeria on the base, a stabilization expert working for the NATO command in Kandahar called the lack of electricity in the city "the principal symbol of the government's inability to deliver services to the people."

"We've been here for eight years, and we've been building things like this," he said, pointing around him. "It's time we helped the people inside the city."

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